How to forgive?

Review of No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was so improbable, I needed Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness to remind me that it was not some figment of my imagination, and did in fact exist. It was so unlikely, in fact, that I feel a quick summary of Commission’s activities is required, so its astounding nature can be fully comprehended.

Let me get this right: After apartheid ended and a fully democratic government was elected, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. This body was created to facilitate a national catharsis, where people were given a platform to narrate their stories of the era. In the case of the victims of the apartheid regime, those who has been abused and tortured by the government security forces, the Commission had the power to grant them a symbolic compensation. “So far so good,” you might say—nothing too radical there. However (and you might have to read sentence twice) the Commission also had the power to grant an amnesty from prosecution, to those who confessed to crimes against humanity, committed during the apartheid era! People could come to the TRC, tell everyone that they had abducted, tortured, maimed and killed, say sorry, and then go home.

It’s all so improbable. South Africa was for half a century the epitome of animosity. The apartheid system took an entire race of people and stomped them into the ground. There was regular violence. There were massacres, notably at Sharpville in 1960 and in Soweto in 1976. There were bombings. The history of South Africa from 1948 points inexorably towards a chaotic civil war, similar to the many other conflicts that have crippled the African continent.

And it just did not happen. Not only did it just not happen, but also out of the negotiations of the early 1990s, there emerged the TRC, which began granting drive-by amnesty and gung-ho forgiveness left, right and centre.

We already know how this came to pass. It was made possible by that unique man Nelson Mandela, and also by people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who took the helm of the TRC when it was established 1995. These South Africans were able to steer their nation away from seemingly certain civil war and onto the path of resolution and development. Such a thing was possible entirely because of the good character of those involved. The source of their morality, sketched in Tutu’s memoir, is something that should be studied by everyone.

The core message of No Future Without Forgiveness is encapsulated bluntly in the title. Before we examine its credibility and implications in detail, there are other nuggets worthy of inspection. What I find most interesting is Desmond Tutu’s account of ubuntu. I will describe it in a moment, but first a few observations on multiculturalism, and my own dabbling with it.

Whenever people talk about cultural exchange as a valuable thing, the reason cited is that we may “learn things from other cultures”. However, what it is we actually learn is never really explained. We can appreciate unfamiliar traditions, but they are always trumped by western liberal values if the push really comes to the shove.

Furthermore, culture as a concept is difficult to define at the best of times. Despite this, my personal experiences have convinced me that we do have valuable lessons to learn from non-Western cultures, and as such I am always delighted when a solid example of non-Western culture surfaces, and proves itself to be superior. Ubuntu is one such example, and one I have experienced before.

In Tutu’s words, which I shall quote at length with no qualms or apologies:

Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’ … this means they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people … I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.

This is one of the best articulations of ubuntu I have read, and it makes me smile. When I read it in No Future Without Forgiveness I instantly recognised it that distinctly African way of treating other people that I experienced when I lived on the other side of the Limpopo, in Zimbabwe. It is the thing that says, “you will always feed a visitor to your house”, that says, “you will give a ride to those you see standing beside the road.” It is that attitude that says, “Respect your family,” that says “you will be better off working together.” Ubuntu is a way of saying “we are all part of the same team, the same human race.” It is a very communal attitude to take, one that is not evident in Britain, mid-2002.

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